Bill Walters sells Minaret Cinames
Bill Walters founder and owner of Minaret Cinemas has sold the theater to D’Place Entertainment. D’Place officially took over on Friday, March 1.
On Thursday, Bill Walters worked his last day at Minaret Cinemas.
He is retiring after working as an exhibitor, the official term for someone who shows movies, for thirty years.
I met him on Wednesday morning at Minaret Cinemas to hear his swan song.
He is steady and self-assured. I was about one minute late and he was five. He walked into the cinemas without hurrying. He watches you with eyes wide open. They rarely blink. They don’t miss much. He talks without hurrying in a low New York accent. He was born in Manhattan and raised in Queens by immigrant parents. His mother was Irish. His father, British.
“They didn’t have the best timing because they moved here in 1929 in the crash,” he said.
He prefers to joke and laughs from his gut often before he’s made it to the punch line.
We sat in the projection room overlooking Minaret Cinemas two auditoriums.
In 1989, he bought the now defunct Plaza Theater from his next door neighbor, Dick Ellewart, not because he loved movies. It was a business opportunity.
Let’s rewind. In 1964, he moved from New York City to Los Angeles with his wife, Cindy, and first child (He has two and they live in Las Vegas.)
He worked for AT&T for thirty years. He started as a lineman and worked his way
up to management and marketing. Around 1967, he read an article in The Los Angeles Times about Mammoth Lakes. He visited the next year and has skied every season since.
In 1987, he retired from AT&T and moved to Mammoth full-time. But full-time retirement bored him, so when Ellowat wanted to sell, Bill was buying.
“The nature of the business was going to fit my lifestyle because I didn’t move up here because I liked to ski. I loved to ski,” Bill said.
He could ski in the morning and come into work around noon. Because of the sale, he had not been on the mountain in the last three weeks and had not gone up the morning of our interview, probably because of the interview.
Instead he settled for talking about skiing. Skiers, and I am one, tend to talk about skiing when they’re not skiing. It’s the next best thing but not even close to the actual thing.
Bill escaped to skiing.
“By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I used to take a backpack. Take the subway over to the Port Authority. Take the Greyhound Bus to upstate New York and go out to Harriman State Park and go camping for a week. My older brother thought there was something wrong with me because he was a true city kid.”
When he was about eighteen-years old, his love for the outdoors led him to ski.
He skied all over the north east. He recalled the wind at Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, New Hampshire. “That’s where the term, ‘bone-chilling cold’ came from.”
Due to the humid climate, the wind chill is often far greater than the faster drier winds at Mammoth.
He turned 80 last November and now skis for free.
“I was sitting on the chair last season thinking, ‘Wow, next season is free.’ Then, I’m thinking about all the lift tickets I bought, all the season passes I bought. Hell, this isn’t free. I just prepaid.” He laughed.
Bill planned to run The Plaza Theater for five or six years and then sell it. Like most life plans, it morphed. In 1994, he bought the space where Minaret Cinemas is now. It had been a sporting goods store. The remodel and construction involved removing support columns, columns aren’t great in movie theaters, he reminded me. The columns were replaced with steal beams and the two theaters were built.
He kept The Plaza running until 2006.
Minaret Cinemas switched to digital projection in 2013. A single film is stored on a hard drive the size of an old VHS tape. For the unfamiliar, imagine a ‘King Sized’ box of Junior Mints. For the still unfamiliar … you’re hopeless.
Studios save money by digitally storing films.
Bill explained: “Switching to digital … the major reason for it was the fact that a 35 mm film, according to their figures, cost them fifteen hundred dollars each print. Digital is a little hard drive. Probably the first one is a thousand bucks and every one after that is five.”
“So then how would they get exhibitors to convert. They did it in two ways. The first exhibitors that were going to get on the program, the studios won’t say this, but I guarantee they were giving it to them for free. That put a better image on the screen than what you had with the thirty five millimeter. But most moviegoers wouldn’t have seen the difference.”
A late convert, Walters had to buy digital projectors. He bought two for $52,000 each on a lease-to-buy agreement and joined a Virtual Print Free (VPF) program. On the program, the studio paid him $750 per opening and capped the openings at 180. He reached 180 screenings in May 2018, totaling $130,000 on the program, which covered the cost of his lease payments for the new digital projection equipment and the $1 to buy it.
The hard drive is slimmer than the film reels. The picture is more consistent. Splicing film is obsolete and if there’s a fire in the theater there’s less kindling. Nevertheless, Bill misses film.
Now, if the projector breaks, he has to call a technician, who remotely accesses the computers – each projector has five – to fix it. With film, if the reel snapped, he could splice it. If it tangled, he could unspool it. When a lamp burst or went out, it took half an hour before the film was back on. The projector lamps run around 600 degrees Fahrenheit and it could take twice that time to let it cool and replace. With a half an hour, patrons could go to the bathroom or buy popcorn. He’d lose some people but not all. With an hour break to fix a digital screening issue, people leave.
His viewership has been consistent. To him, his business is subject to the same pressures as any other small business in Mammoth: endure the shoulder seasons to reap in the winter and summer.
I asked about streaming services as if they wore a black robe and carried a scythe. Bill was unfazed.
“That [internet streaming services] provided the studios another business venue. I don’t know what the percentage is of people who subscribe to Netflix that never maybe went to the movie theater.”
Bill’s intuition is right. In December 2018, Variety reported that according to a study by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) out of 2,500 subjects, “Nearly half of the people who said they didn’t visit a movie theater in the last 12 months also didn’t stream any online content. Just 18% of those who avoid theaters streamed online content for eight or more hours per week.” People who watch, watch at home and in the theater.
It’s not just old people; teenagers still like the movies.
Variety reported that “Respondents between the ages of 13 to 17 went to a mean of 7.3 movies per year and consumed 9.2 hours of streaming content per week, the highest of any age group.”
“I get this a lot. They say, ‘You know we don’t go to the theater that often down south because it’s so crowded. But we really like it here because it’s an old-fashioned type theater and it makes us feel good.”
The Grim Reaper was supposed to come for the theater when Television became a household appliance.
She was also supposed to show when VHS and DVD were invented.
Yet, with the rise of On Demand and now streaming services, theaters remain.
“I don’t care how good your home system is, seeing it on a big screen with a good sound system makes all the difference in the world.”
People gather for better picture, the better sound and even though they won’t admit it, to watch the movie with other people, except for the crying baby, the young lovers giggling, the crinkling plastic wrapper being torn from the Raisinets box, and the guy talking to himself loud enough so everyone around can listen to his expert critiques, “Not possible.” or “That’s not even the same place.” or “I could do that.”
Maybe someone will throw something at the screen. (Bill told me that the straws are unwrapped to cut back on the ammunition that kids could use for spitballs. It didn’t eliminate spitballs but it reduced the number of wads stuck to the screen, the seats and the floor. Spitballers had to use napkins or candy boxes as ammunition.)
Bill recalled some of his favorite audiences.
On December 2016, for midnight the premier of ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, by 5 p.m. there was a line that went from the box office to the glass doors then would south all the way to The Chocolate Factory.
The people may or may not have been nipping at flasks or drinking beer or partaking in the gentle herb. Anyway, when the doors opened … “They would wipe out the snack bar.” Bill laughed. “And then when the movie was over at 2 o’clock in the morning you’d have to go down in the auditorium, have lights up, and there’d always be fifteen to twenty people asleep in the seat. You’d have to wake them up. So they had to come back and see the movie again.” Another laugh. “Those were fun times.”
In May 27, for the premier of Sex in the City, “All the ladies in town got dressed to the max in their best clothes. High heels and everything. They all had big purses and one of my managers says to me, ‘Bill I went in the auditorium and they all have champagne and wine.’”
“They had one hell of a time.”
He knew how to measure the crowd. When to let the chatters chat and when to kick them out.
“You got to go with the audience,” he said.
It’s not the revelers or rabble rousers that are the worst.
“If there’s anything that’ll stop people from coming to a movie theater, it’s the cell phones,” he said.
“In a dark theater, that blue screen is disturbing.”
But he still had to enforce the rules.
“This woman is coming in the door and she’s got a Giovanni’s pizza and my door person says, ‘You can’t bring that in.’ And she says, ‘Oh yes I can.’ She [the door person] calls me over and I say [to the customer], ‘Ma’am that sign has been there since we opened the doors here in ’94.
“She says, ‘I want to talk to the manager.’
I says, ‘I am the manager.’
She says, ‘I want to talk to the owner.’
I says, ‘I am the owner.’
‘No you’re not.
‘Yes, I am. Why would I lie about that.’
She goes, ‘I want to talk to the owner.’
I says, ‘One minute.’
I went inside. I had these Groucho Marx glasses with the nose. I put that on and came out.
I go,” imitating Groucho Marx’s speedy speech, “What can I do for ya.”
She retrieves her husband who’s in the theater.
“This guy comes out with a bald head and he’s got to be six foot four. I go, “Oh shit. I’m in trouble.”
Bill talked to the couple, refunded them and they left.
At this point, the The Plaza Theater was still open and the start time was later than the one at Minaret. After the movie at Minaret started, Bill went over to sell tickets at The Plaza and lo and behold, same couple walks in.
“I says, ‘What can I do for you?’
He says, ‘Two adults.’
I says, ‘She doesn’t have the pizza under her jacket does she?’”
He shook his head and Bill sold them the tickets.